If your heart rate quickens at the thought of pushing yourself physically and mentally, this challenging two-week cycling adventure through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama might be for you. The cycling is moderately tough at times, mostly due to the daily distances in the saddle, hilly and sometimes, uneven off the beaten path, terrain, but when you push through the hot and humid weather and the sore legs, you’ll experience beautiful lush green rainforests, get up close and personal with active volcanoes, go from your cycling seat to submerge yourself in an ocean within a matter of minutes, bathe in restorative thermal spring waters, see rare and unique wildlife, all topped off with an incredible sense of achievement.
Table of contents: ()
- Granada, Nicaragua
- Masaya Volcano and Lake Nicaragua
- Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
- San Juan del sur, Nicaragua
- Into Costa Rica
- Rafting on Tenorio River and Arenal
- Cycle to La Fortuna
- Cycling to Cahuita
- Entering Panama and over to Bocas Del Toro
- Cycling to Santiago, through rural lowland Panama, and on to Panama City
- Panama Canal Lock Miraflores
In just over two weeks, you’ll travel across three Central American countries, the Volcano rich Nicaragua, tropically vibrant Costa Rica, and the engineeringly magnificent Panama. If you want an active vacation and to see Central America away from just the usual tourist spots, this is the perfect trip for you. This is a cycling trip complemented by beautiful nature and rich experiences, not the other way around, so expect a lot of time in the cycling saddle.
The trip is organized by Exodus (the activity and adventure holiday company) and each day begins with breakfast, the daily briefing huddled around a map, cycling with plenty of stops for snacks, meals, and photo opportunities, but also allocates a day off as well as enough time at the end of each day to relax and recoup and get to know the other people in your group. Group size tends to be around 10-16 people and they are often from all walks of life and places in the world, this in itself, adds to the uniqueness of this trip and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you settle into a cozy family dynamic. It’s also worth noting that you’re likely to have some keen and experienced cyclists who take to the days task with ease and sometimes speed, but don’t be put off if you’re a hobby or beginner cyclist (as I am) or even if you’re just a bit rusty, they have a support vehicle with you at all times, which means you can choose to drive sections should you want to take a break or just enjoy the scenery from a vehicle.
Nicaragua has a multi-ethnic population representing people from indigenous, European, African, and Asian heritage; however, the main language is Spanish as the region was occupied by the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, with Nicaragua only gaining independence from Spain in 1821. Nicaragua is rich in biodiversity, but it’s often the region’s volcanoes that act as the focal tourist attraction.
The trip begins in the pretty city of Granada, which is around 1-1.5hrs from Nicaragua’s Managua airport. Granada is situated on the shores of the vast freshwater Lake Nicaragua and was founded in 1524. It is Nicaragua’s sixth most populous city and has a strong colonial history, which can be seen in its culture and architecture, such as the Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral (built in 1525), but you’ll see plenty of examples in the tropically painted buildings all around this city.
We were based at The Hotel Patio del Malinche, which offers comfortable rooms and is typically styled around a central courtyard. Day one pivots around settling in and adjusting to the local time zone and climate, however, the hotel is well located, should you want to have a wander around the city or stop off for an evening tona (beer).
Masaya Volcano and Lake Nicaragua
Day two begins with a morning briefing for the day’s 20km bike ride, followed by bike set up and on for a short test ride around the city to the shore of Lake Nicaragua, which is the tenth largest lake in the world. The cycling route allows views of the forest-covered extinct Mombacho volcano. Mombacho includes a cloud forest which is a wet and tropical forest home to many varieties of mosses and a dwarf forest of miniature trees. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see these forests in person as there is so much to experience in Nicaragua, but that’s a reason to return.
The trip instead takes a short transfer car ride over to Masaya Volcano National Park, where for just $4 entry you can peer over the crater of Masaya Volcano. The park itself is 54km2 and includes two volcanoes. Masaya continually degasses so you’ll notice the unmissable smell of sulfur, which means your visit will be limited to around 10-20mins. Back to Granada to visit the long-established Villas Mombacho restaurant for the fresh lake fish and more volcano views, but make sure you have plenty of time as service can take a while. Perhaps arrange a short boat ride on Lake Nicaragua from the restaurant whilst you wait for your food?
Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
It’s a step up in the cycling to cover almost 40k today, as from Granada it’s a cycle around Lake Nicaragua to the port of San Jorge to take an hour-long ferry transfer over to the figure of eight shaped, Ometepe Island. Ometepe island is formed by two volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas) rising out of Lake Nicaragua. Whilst Ometepe is known for its volcanoes it’s also home to rich rainforests, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and plantain crops, so the cycle to the eco-reserve and private lakeside beaches of Hotel Charco Verde offers plenty to see.
San Juan del sur, Nicaragua
Onto the ferry again to return to mainland Nicaragua to continue our cycling journey south to the popular town of San Juan Del Sur. Located on the Pacific coast, San Juan Del Sur is a colorful surf town often visited by twenty-somethings seeking beach parties and also a place to get hands-on with nature, as here you can, hire a catamaran, take a hike, surf, and ride horses.
Plenty of stops on this day’s cycle to San Juan Del Sur giving out gifts to local schools, chatting with locals, and generally absorbing the laid-back way of life as these stops are often not on the tourist trails, so you’ll see rural living at its best. You might even hear howler monkeys as you cycle through the forest areas.
Upon arrival at the accommodation, if partying the night away is not for you, Hotel Selina Maderas with its cabanas is a short walk to watch the sunset at Playa Marsella or to see the wilder waters of the surf beach Playa Maderas.
Into Costa Rica
It’s an early start as you leave Nicaragua, as we want to avoid being in the saddle during the midday heat, but you’ll have some great views as you pedal out of Nicaragua to La Virgen where we transferred to the border (have your paperwork, fees, water and a fan handy). As we know immigration in to any country can take five minutes or can take hours, depending on how busy they are, but this is an outdoor queuing affair and it tended to move relatively quickly on our visit. Nevertheless, cycling is likely to be limited this day, which to be honest, was a respite from the 30-40km per day over the last few days. We stayed at the hotel Hacienda La Pacifica which is a working farm with its very own wildlife rescue center (Las Pumas).
Rafting on Tenorio River and Arenal
The Tenorio River is close by and it’s famed for its wide range of birds, monkeys, and crocodiles all living harmoniously around the water’s edges. We took a two-hour ride or float along the river to learn all about the fauna and flora (see if you can find the fern plants that leave a white powder residue offering instant and temporary fern ‘tattoos’).
After lunch, it’s a long cycle (55km) in the hilly region around Lake Arenal including along the Pan American Highway. The start of which includes a climb, but then a downhill section. Then sadly (or happily if you are a glutton for punishment), it’s back again to tough hilly climbs, but the difficult cycling is made all worthwhile when you see the eco, slightly hippy, and beautiful Mystica Resort. Costa Rica is known for its eco and sustainability tourism and Mystica certainly delivers on that, whilst also maintaining comfort and a touch of luxury. Mystica is an oasis up on a hill overlooking forests and Arenal Lake and its Volcano, so look out for wild pineapples growing in the grounds and for the local toucans. Wood-fired pizzas and a decent wine selection, Mystica is a must!
Cycle to La Fortuna
You get beautiful lush views of Costa Rica as you cycle down and inland to La Fortuna and its dam which provides nearly 12% of the country’s total electricity. However, La Fortuna is most famously known for its lava flowing Volcanos, resulting in hot thermal springs and waterfalls.
The cone-shaped Arenal volcano can be seen for miles as it’s over 5300 ft tall. Surprisingly, Arenal Volcano is considered young as it’s estimated to be only 7,500 years old. Another chance to see the local wildlife with monkeys, toucans, and colorful butterflies are all around. Watch out for the leaf-cutting ants when you stop to take a drink or snack … they are strangely addictive to watch.
There is a two-night stay at San Bosco with its pool and jacuzzi and it is nearby to a laundry should you need it. San Bosco is a good place to pick up local produce (coffees, spices, souvenirs) and has lots of options for dinner, so take a wander to see what you fancy. The second day loops around La Fortuna for more volcano views and after two heavy going days, you’ll welcome a visit to the Eco Termales, one of the many hot springs in the area. I recommend the Pina Coladas and the buffet dinner (under $25).
Cycling to Cahuita
Today we begin our journey to the Caribbean coast to Cahuita, which is near to the border of Panama, so watch out for the heat, especially as this day is over 80km of cycling. Food options on this stretch are limited to expect a simple offering, but this is offset by another day of great open views. Lush plantations and an array of wildlife surround you and finally, you get to take a dip in the Caribbean near the Hotel Atlantida. I hadn’t prepped enough prior to the trip and so I spent a lot of time looking down pushing through the cycle, so if you can, before you travel get used to daily cycles and long distances, so that you can cycle with ease and enjoy what’s around you!
Entering Panama and over to Bocas Del Toro
Another highlight of this trip is the border crossing at Sixaola from Costa Rica into Panama. This derelict bridge that can’t be cycled over (too many holes) is something out of an Indiana Jones movie. There is a newer bridge which is the main route over to Panama, but, if you can, channel your inner Indy and walk over the old bridge.
Upon arrival to Panama, we headed straight to the dock to go to Bocas Del Toro (30 min boat ride) for some time off. During the boat transfer watch out for dolphins and women dressed in long flowing embroidered dresses who are part of the Guaymi tribe.
Bocas Del Toro (meaning Bull’s river mouth) is an area on the mainland and nine surrounding islands. Christopher Columbus explored the area in 1502 and originally named it Isla del Drago. Today, Bocas Del Toro is a popular destination known for its culture, beaches, rainforests, and surfing so it’s a perfect place to relax.
The Gran Bahia Hotel (look out for the oversized original safe in the reception area), is at the quieter end of lively Bocas Del Toro (read bars and nightlife). For our first evening we opted to take it easy and just head out for evening cocktails at the Om Cafe on the waterfront and dinner at El Refugio or alternatively at Buena Vista.
For the full day off, we headed over to Red Frog Island where you can combine dolphin watching, snorkeling, and visit Red Frog beach with its pretty rainforest leading to white beaches. If that’s not for you, Bocas Water sports offers plenty of alternatives.
Cycling to Santiago, through rural lowland Panama, and on to Panama City
Back to mainland Panama to ride through rainforest and jungle scenery. This will be a mix of cycle and transfer due to the distance to Panama City via Santiago, but my highlight of the day was the fast and fun downhill section after the climb up to the Lago Fortuna reservoir. What can I say? who doesn’t like to feel the speed and wind rushing through your hair! During this day you might notice a change in heat and humidity due to the altitude changes.
More cycling(!) and it’s quite a shock to hit Panama City coming from so many rural stays. In Panama City we stayed at the Allbrook Inn, which is situated in the region which was a former US Air Force Base) and dine at Rinos which is an old favorite of Panama’s elite.
Panama Canal Lock Miraflores
The final day is spent in wonder at the engineering brilliance of the Panama Canal Lock, Miraflores, built in 1914. Around 30 ships a day make this passing so you’ll probably see a cruise lining going through the lock (including the masses of waving passengers). Once you’ve quizzed up on all of the facts it’s a cycle out to Gatun lake (an artificial freshwater lake south of Colon) and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for more wildlife and lunch at Los Lagartos where you can watch the wildlife as you dine.
It’s then out of the saddle to spend the last afternoon wandering the historic and World Heritage Site Casco Viejo (Spanish for old quarter) and find a rooftop spot like the bar at Tantalo Terraza for great views of the city and sunset cocktail to seal this wonderful trip. It was hard work, but certainly worth every pedal.
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